Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord to Good Friday Year A 2017

Memory is a powerful ally in the economy of salvation--a soothing salve for life in the lacrimarum valle. If you think about it, the Shema, "Hear O Israel" is a mnemonic aid. More than an invitation to listen, it is also a duty that Israel remembers what the Lord God has done.

Christianity, in particular those that maintain a valid priesthood, has not strayed far from this recalling. The Eucharist's "Do this in memory of me" serves to remind us that despite our frequent failures, God has always been faithful no matter what we feel about His promise. Unfortunately, much like the Israelites, we are a forgetful lot. Providentially though, the Church through her seasons gives us time to recall God's abiding presence, otherwise known as the history of salvation. A good illustration of this providence is, as Lent draws to its conclusion, the sub-season known as the Passiontide.

Passiontide jolts our capacity to remember. Sadly, memory is a faculty frequently associated with the negative. When considered negatively, it is something we want to forget. For example, with PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder—soldiers returning from the battlefield often fight to forget the trauma they had undergone.

How is Passiontide helpful as a memetic tool?

It is bound to a symbolic action carried out last weekend (5th Sunday of Lent). Some churches began covering their crucifixes, statues and images. Why? The alternative Collect for Mass on Friday of the 5th Week of Lent provides an insight for this rather random ritual as it makes mention of Mary. According to the older liturgical calendar, the feast of the Seven Sorrows of Mary[1] is commemorated on this day as it falls well within "Passion" Week. So, what we celebrate today as Passion Sunday took place formerly on the 5th Sunday of Lent.

Under the revised calendar of 1969, Passion and Palm Sunday were coalesced into one—Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. This development when taken apart, sheds light on why we begin veiling the crucifix, statues and images on the 5th Sunday of Lent. If we follow the pre-1969 liturgical calendar, the Gospel reading for Passion Sunday, that is 5th Sunday of Lent, is taken from John 8:46-59 where at the end of the passage, it is noted that Jesus removed and hid Himself from the rage of the Jewish authorities--an absence which is less of an escape but more of a shrouding of His divinity in preparation for the trial of His passion. According to the noted liturgist, Dom Gueranger, the statues and images of saints are also veiled since the "glory of the Master be eclipsed, the servants should not appear".

This historical detour affords a little glimpse into what appears seemingly as an anachronistic practice in the rite of veiling. The point is that the melding of two Sundays into one has rendered Passiontide almost obsolete. The Supreme authority of the Church may have had good reasons for revising the calendar to meet the requirements of the Novus Ordo. However, what implication does this "shortening" have for us?

Memory is not merely a matter of the past but rather it is of a past permeated by a persistent presence of God. We veil so that our senses are jolted into remembering. But, in an attempt to exorcise PTSD of its inevitable pain, God's presence is also ousted from memory. Nevertheless, instinctively we know how important memory is and it is observed in a phenomenon which resonates deeply with many of us. The advent of the camera phones has corresponded to the proliferation of "professional poor-quality" photography[2]. The other day, I saw a woman taking pictures of her toddler's every move. What was she doing? She was manufacturing memories. We seem to be engrossed with making memories--trying to store "good" history for the future.

But, memory is always about the past and never about the future. The previous week, I alluded to the desire to "live" fully, as a temporal[3] form of rage against a miserly God. This "rage" continues in another disposition as we can be so caught up with creating a future for remembrance that we forget to live the moment, not the adrenalin kind of moment, but the present wherein our salvation is being worked out.

If the Shema has anything to teach us, it is how forgetful we are. For the Jews, the Shema is incorporated into the morning and evening prayers. For Catholics, remembering takes place through the daily rhythm of the Divine Office, the flow of the liturgical seasons and most of all, at every Eucharist. In the past, we anticipated Easter through a long period of recalling beginning with the Septuagesima followed by Quinqagesima and then Quadragesima. What are they but 70, 60 and 50 days before Easter.[4] Since memory is of the past and because we are forgetful, the liturgical calendar dedicates that much time to lead us into Easter.

If history is always the history of salvation, then the past, no matter how painful, is also a past pregnant with God's saving presence. Anamnesis and amnesia are two sides of a coin. One side remembers and the other side forgets. It is our amnesia that shocks and drives us to secure an adrenalin-fuelled present, and since we are fearful of a non-existent future, we are at the same time driven to store up memory lest we be forgotten. Whilst memory's main function is to remember "Yeshua"--the God who saves, PTSD thrives on a memory which implies God's absence. Nothing is wrong with that because even the Son of God Himself cried out "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani", a cry bereft of God's presence. It proves how our memory is always tempted to amnesia and in a world seduced by PTSD’s forgetfulness, it would be good to dwell on a quote scrawled on the wall of a cell in Auschwitz:

I believe in the sun even when not shining.

I believe in love even when not feeling it.
I believe in God even when He is silent.

The Son hanging on the Cross who felt nothing but the abject rejection of God's silence eventually found enough human strength to believe and trust in His God when He cried out: "Father into your hands I commend my spirit". 


[1] Now celebrated on 15th Sept, a day after the Triumph/Exaltation of the Cross.
[2] Apple’s advertising campaign “Shot on iPhone” in 2015 celebrated the phenomenon that everyone can be a professional photographer. If in 1999, 80 billion photographs were shot that year, today about 2 billion photographs are posted and shared on Facebook EACH DAY. The irony is that everyone is a professional photographer just means that there are just so many phonegraphers!
[3] Why temporal? Because God is not generous enough to indulge us with good health and long life for EVERYONE.
[4] Quadragesima, the Latin term for Lent, when excluding Sundays, will measure up to the 40 days of Jesus' fasting in the desert.